Since becoming a mother, I have read more picture books than I ever imagined I would. Brett and I are readers and want our children to be readers, so we buy a lot of books, ask for books for birthdays and Christmas, and regularly check out books from the library. One thing we look at before we buy or borrow a book is how many words are on each page. When our kids are really young, we choose books with very few words. As they grow and pay attention for longer periods, we introduce books with more and more words.
As I was researching the academic opinion of comic books for a future post, I thought about this more carefully. I’m sure we’re not the only parents who choose books in this way. We want our children to be engaged with books and know that this is the best way to do that. The words and pictures together help them to understand what they’re reading. It’s interesting to me that, for children, it’s not only okay but encouraged to read books that balance words and pictures. Then, as they get older, the words increase and the pictures decrease, until finally we become adults and our books have no pictures at all. It’s as though we’re saying that words and images are two separate art forms and can only be combined for children.
There seems to be an unconscious perception that “smart” people read long books without pictures and “childish” people read books with pictures, like comic books and graphic novels. With my background as an English major, I felt trained to value books with great literary merit (i.e., books with words and without pictures by well-known authors) and to look down upon comic books. This unspoken idea is what makes me hesitate to say that I enjoy reading comic books. If I didn’t have children, this idea would probably stop me from buying or reading picture books. As a single woman, when I did buy a picture book, it was with the thought: My future children will need this.
But visual art and written art both serve the same purpose—to allow us to connect. We look at a painting and it stirs up an emotion or triggers a memory. A good book will do the same thing. Both mediums can help us to become better—to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. When Brett and I choose picture books for our children, we look for a good story as well as good art. With comic books, we do the same thing. Poor artwork can make us lose interest, no matter how good the story is. It’s important to us that the words and the pictures work well together.
Can we really say that one person’s chosen genre is less valid than another’s? As long as we both benefit from what we read, as long as there is something to gain and learn, any genre can have merit. Comic books, picture books, long and wordy novels—we can find value in any of them if we are willing to look for it.